Badger cull given the green light


By Paul Bransom (Image:Wind in the Willows (1913).djvu, page 326) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Bransom (Image:Wind in the Willows (1913).djvu, page 326) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

`Now, the VERY next time this happens,’ said a gruff and suspicious voice, `I shall be exceedingly angry. Who is it THIS time, disturbing people on such a night? Speak up!’

Badgers are, undoubtedly, an icon of classic, heritage, British countryside. For centuries, badgers have been the subject of controversy between farmer and nature lover, as a pest and as a flagship species. No less but Kenneth Grahame portrayed Badger in Wind and the Willows (1908) as a grumpy, hardy Tory who was, despite this, a caring and brave individual for his country companions (pictured right).

But in 1997, Sir John Krebs made the scientific link between the transmission of tuberculosis (TB) between badgers and cattle, thus acting as the carrier for this virus that was detrimental to the livestock industry of the UK. Since the discovery, government, farmers, and the public have been battling out to establish a sensible solution to this problem.

Tuberculosis in cattle (bovine TB) is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria M. bovis, causing weakness, weight loss, and coughing. Spread by faeces and urine on farmland and cattle pasture, the disease can spread from cow to cow, badger to badger, cow to badger, and (wait for it…), badger to cow.

Badger continued his description on the men that used to live around his burrow to Rat and his friend:

 They’re not so bad really; and we must all live and let live. But I’ll pass the word around to-morrow, and I think you’ll have no further trouble. Any friend of MINE walks where he likes in this country, or I’ll know the reason why!’

Costing farmers and taxpayers thousands to deal with the disposal and treatment of infected cattle, the obvious option was to control the carriers; the common badger. At the small price of £50 million, the ‘Randomized Badger Cull Trial’ (RBCT) set out to decipher whether a badger cull would reduce bovine TB cases. Data concluded that culling would indeed reduce risk incidence by around 16% over 9 years.

Badger ecology reveals that the social living groups, known as ‘setts’, are very antagonistic and often changing, with territory scuffs common, thus enhancing the likelihood of spread. When badgers are culled, the setts are disrupted, allowing new territorial openings for badgers to explore new areas, taking TB alongside. This perturbation effect has meant that TB cases have significantly increased in non-cull zones. Motorways and rivers could potentially restrict this effect, although further testing needs to be done.

So what’s next? Trapping badgers for to vaccinate individuals against the disease, as well as trapping them for shooting, is high on the agenda for conservationists and countryside-lovers; but farmers want a quick, obvious method to deal with the problem. DEFRA estimates that a pilot cull would cost the region of £100,000 a year, alongside policing that would cost £500,000 per area per year. 

But the situation is far more complex than first anticipated. Whilst the problem of badger perturbations exists, other complications affect the predictions and success of control options. Statistical modelling suggests that a combination of: the disease comprising multiple stages, including a lag phase; alongside the life-history of badger social groups; cattle herd movements; the transmission of the disease back to badgers from cattle; intra-herd cattle transmission dynamics; farm placements; sett territories and badger disputes; and illegal activities, may all be interacting factors affecting the final outcome. Thus, these could all affect the final management implemented, whether it be substantiated by correct evidence or not.

With the cull given the go-ahead for Autumn 2013, the public are still hugely against any action whilst farmers are already letting off steam. Many parties, most notably the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), have advocated the use of biosecurity for the prevention of TB spread. Biosecurity would involve proper physical barriers between the badgers and cattle in the field, including fencing and locked sheds; FERA showed that, when used properly, biosecurity can achieve 100% efficacy. There is clearly significant room for improvement and research into this simple solution, rather than the controversial cull in the schedule for Autumn. But, are we ready to lose one of our iconic, heritage animals whilst the countryside was originally for them, not for farmland?

`People come–they stay for a while, they flourish, they build–and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.’